2020 Award for Doctoral Research on Urban Issues

The 21st Century Cities Initiative (21CC) at Johns Hopkins University promotes the research of graduate students working toward a Ph.D. degree with a 21CC Research Award for innovative dissertation research focusing on policy-relevant urban research that closely aligns with 21CC’s interest areas. In 2020, 21CC awarded 12 PhD students researching a variety of urban issues from immigration to education to healthy food to disaster relief in Baltimore City and cities across the globe.

From Redlining to Green Network: Urban greening and the racial politics of plants

Awardee: Nathaniel Adams, Anthropology

The city of Baltimore has recently adopted a bold demolition and urban greening strategy to address problems associated with depopulation and urban decay in poor communities of color. The plan reimagines Baltimore as an ecological network with corridors of green space reconnecting the city after decades of entrenched residential segregation. The policy is being enacted via a diverse set of non-state actors including nonprofit park advocacy groups, black food sovereignty activists, vernacular gardeners, and ecologists. Though sustainability discourse glosses these diverse efforts as “urban greening,” antagonisms unfold around issues including aesthetics, ownership, and displacement, reanimating longstanding urban racial justice concerns within an emerging politics of sustainability in the vacant lots of West Baltimore. I suggest that in order to assess the successes and failures of urban greening approaches in Baltimore, we require a better understanding of the way that green space has taken on significance in relation to the material and social legacies of redlining and residential segregation. This project takes an anthropological perspective focused on local notions of place and civic belonging in relation to green space. Considering the centrality of property relations within histories of redlining, this project will also examine how contemporary urban greening relates to issues of land ownership and control. Ultimately this project asks: How are urban greening efforts acting to remediate, reproduce, or reimagine the enduring spatial legacies of residential segregation in postindustrial cities like Baltimore?


Nat Adams is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His research examines the politics of urban sustainability in historically redlined communities. He is interested in the ways plants and green spaces come to take on meaning in relation to the experience of marginality in American cities. Prior to coming to Johns Hopkins he worked for several years at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs as a program coordinator, working on policy oriented research at the intersection of religion and international development. He holds an MSc in International Development from Lund University and a BA in Anthropology from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Arresting Movement: The Political Economy of Immigration Detention in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom

Awardee: Sabrina Axster, Political Science

Immigration detention is a central component of global efforts to curb migration and to facilitate the deportation of undocumented migrants. Governments use it as an administrative measure to ascertain migrants’ identities, rights of residence and prepare deportation. But reality paints a different picture and points to punitive detention practices including broad grounds for detention, long detention sentences, violence against detainees and the use of police raids and solitary confinement. This pushes us to ask: if immigration detention is used as an administrative practice, why is it so punitive? I argue that to answer this question we need to look at national institutional arrangements beyond migration control and their interaction with regional drivers emanating from the European Union. I thus analyze the high level of punitiveness in detention by examining the intersecting histories and logics of the penal system and immigration detention and how they are shaped by racialized constructions of delinquency and threats. Governments are at pains to underscore the differences between the two by referencing immigration detention’s administrative nature. But significant conceptual, architectural and procedural similarities exist. I argue that the two exist in a mutually constitutive relationship where the institutional arrangements of the penal system influence the character of immigration detention and vice versa. I propose a comparative case study of Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which, despite differences in the character of their immigration detention policies, are converging on levels of punitiveness. The UK has the most punitive system marked by an absence of an upper time limit on detention. Sweden and Germany both recently broadened the grounds for and length of detention.


Sabrina Axster is a third year doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on the intersections between racism, criminal justice and migration control and thus explores the links between global systems of bordering, policing, and incarceration and the interplay of global, regional and national drivers of these phenomena. Prior to starting her PhD, Sabrina worked at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. She holds an MS in Global Affairs from Rutgers University and an MSc in International Development Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

Police and Family Life in Baltimore City

Awardee: Rachel Butler, Sociology

A large body of research documents disparities in police surveillance, arrest, and use of force by neighborhood racial composition and concentrated disadvantage. Research also describes legal cynicism, institutional distrust, and dissatisfaction with the police among black Americans, particularly those living in areas of concentrated poverty. However, a largely unexplored topic is the demand for police services that arises in disadvantaged and predominantly black neighborhoods. Even after adjusting for crime levels, high rates of calls to police originate in majority-black, low-income neighborhoods. Why do we observe high rates of police utilization by members of communities most at risk of police over-attention and mistreatment? Despite the burgeoning literature on race, mass incarceration, and the racially disparate negative effects of the criminal justice system, we know very little about the ways in which residents of highly policed communities with high rates of incarceration utilize and rely upon that system. I will therefore use funds to interview 40 residents of low-income Baltimore neighborhoods about their experiences with police, including their views of police and police utilization. Exploring how citizen calls for service shape the ways in which police operate is a necessary and neglected area of research. A better understanding of the demand for police services that arises in disadvantaged Baltimore neighborhoods could benefit policymakers, police reform efforts, social service organizations, and ultimately Baltimore residents.


Rachel Butler is a sociology PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. She studies social inequality, focusing on race, criminal justice system contact, and family life. Previously, Rachel taught in public and charter elementary schools in Philadelphia and a tuition-free private school for boys in Washington, D.C. She also worked as a program associate for the Education Reimagined project at the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, and served as the Early Leaning Program Coordinator at the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative. Rachel holds a B.A. in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from Yale University and an M.S.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.  

Between Economic and Social Exclusions: Chinese Online Gambling Investments in Metro Manila

Awardee: Alvin Camba, Sociology

Recent scholarship on Chinese capital has argued that there are different types of Chinese firms and investments, explaining variegated impact across contexts. These works overlooked one crucial question: what are the place-specific and developmental ramifications of Chinese capital on the host society? I examine the influx of Chinese online gambling investments in Metro Manila, the national capital of the Philippines comprising 16 cities and over 20 million people. I ask two questions: what is the impact of Chinese capital on the built environments of Metro Manila? How does Chinese capital impact the Philippines’ broader development trajectory? 

Using Karl Polanyi’s work on fictitious commodities, I argue that Chinese online gambling capital generates specific forms of economic and social exclusions that emerge from the Philippines’ preexisting structural inequalities. First, online gambling exacerbates the quality of life of most Filipinos due to the investment’s impact on real estate, jobs, and commercial establishments. Online gambling investments bring in hundreds of thousands of semi-legal and illegal Chinese workers, purchase prime real estate for their operations and labor, and inadvertently expand “Chinese only” commercial establishments across the cities. Filipinos are excluded because of the surge in real estate prices, limited local job creation, and the defamiliarization of the urban environments due to the racial exclusions imposed by the Chinese establishments. Second, online gambling worsens the country’s political and economic institutions. The sector relies on money laundering, increases rent-seeking opportunities of local officials, and crowds out other sectors in the country.


Alvin Camba is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is a non-resident fellow at the Stratbase-Alberto Del Rosario Institute (ADRi) in the Philippines and the Paramadina Institute for Public Policy (PIPP) in Indonesia. His research has been awarded multiple best graduate research paper awards by sections of the American Sociological Association (ASA), published in academic journals (e.g. Development and Change, Environmental Policy and Governance, and Journal of Agrarian Change), and consulted by Southeast Asian politicians and technocrats. Apart from academic publishing, he also contributes to popular outlets and think tank reports. Alvin has been cited and/or interviewed by The Financial Times, Bloomberg, the South China Morning Post, the Wall Street Journal, Nikkei Asian Review, NPR, and other news outlets. He has also been invited to speak at universities, think tanks, international organizations, state institutions, and political risk firms (e.g. World Bank, US Embassy Manila, and AidData). More information on this work can be found on his website (alvincamba.com)

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?: Local Government and International Influence in Disaster Relief in Indonesia

Awardee: Valerie de Koeijer, Political Science

In 2018, the Indonesian government refused international aid after a series of high impact earthquakes in Lombok, but accepted international aid after the earthquake, tsunami and liquefaction in Sulawesi only one month later. Governments try to assist affected populations after natural disasters by working with international actors. But as the Indonesian case shows, the degree to which they cooperate with international development/humanitarian organizations (IDHOs) varies dramatically across disasters even within the same country. In turn, the relationship between national governments and international actors shapes disaster relief outcomes. International actors provide expertise and aid. However, under certain conditions over-reliance on international relief might harm, for example, the development of the national government’s long-term capacity to deal with natural disaster.

This project seeks to explain how relationships between host governments and IDHOs shape disaster aid outcomes; an ill understood yet crucial aspect of disaster relief theory and practice. I argue that the relationships between governments and IDHOs shape aid outcomes via the interaction of government restrictions and IDHO-government integration. Using Indonesia as a location for multi-sited fieldwork, I will analyze responses to earthquakes and tsunamis in two sectors, early recovery and health, comparing efforts in four provinces affected by disaster since 2006. The project draws on ethnographic methods, interviews, focus groups, and document review to understand IDHO-government relationships and aid outcomes. This project is cognizant of both local and global dynamics, and seeks to produce both a theory on IDHO-government relations, and outputs relevant for disaster response policies in Indonesia and beyond.


Valerie de Koeijer is a 4th year PhD candidate in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on international relations and comparative politics. Her research examines international responses to natural disaster, particularly if and how national and international actors work together, with a focus on Southeast Asia. She holds an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and a BA in Social Sciences from University College Roosevelt.

Ecological perspective on family separation and reunification experienced by Korean Chinese youth in South Korea

Awardee: Yoona Kim, International Health

International and internal migration is reshaping the communities in Asian urban centers. Chinese constitute the largest migrant group in South Korea with over a million Chinese migrants (45% of total number of migrants) in 2018. Among them are around 728,539 Korean Chinese who are Chinese nationals with Korean ancestry. Many Korean Chinese moved to South Korea beginning early 1990s leaving their family behind in China. A recent update to South Korean immigration policy allowed Korean Chinese parents to invite their children, reunifying the family. The separation and reunification experienced by Korean Chinese children in this process may influence their psychosocial and developmental outcomes. This study aims to understand the family separation and reunification experienced by Korean Chinese youths in Seoul, South Korea from an ecological perspective. Individual, interpersonal, and contextual aspects of the youth’s experience are explored across three study aims. Qualitative research methods are chosen to capture the complexity of multilevel influences and their interactions on the youth’s adaptation and development. 20 pairs of Korean Chinese youths between the ages of 15 and 24 and one of their parents will be interviewed. 10 key informants, including community leaders and staff of non‐governmental organizations, will be interviewed further to explore the role of immigration policy, social discrimination, and ethnic/national identity in shaping youth’s experience of family separation and reunification. The results of this study will serve as formative material for immigration and education policy and social interventions that facilitate the family reunification process for Korean Chinese in South Korea.


Yoona Kim is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Social and Behavioral Interventions program under the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Yoona’s research interest centers on how social determinants influence mental health of migrants and their family members in an increasingly mobile, globalized world. With a focus on internal and international migration patterns in East Asia, her dissertation research investigates the relationships between migration and household dynamics and the implications these may have on the development and adjustment of children of migrants. She earned her master’s degree in public health from the University of Hong Kong and her bachelor’s degree in psychology and international studies from Johns Hopkins University.

Quantifying older African Americans’ exposure to structural discrimination: A mixed methods instrument design study

Awardee: Sarah LaFave, Nursing

African Americans experience higher rates of diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and hypertension, compared to non-Hispanic White Americans. Racial disparities are not inevitable and are partially attributable to structural discrimination: the confluence of inequitable institutional policies and practices that affect people across contexts and the life course. As an example, the racial disparity in AD prevalence can be explained by racial disparities in school quality. While single markers of discrimination, such as the relationship between race and school quality, are important, they are not comprehensive measures of structural discrimination. No validated instrument measures structural discrimination across contexts and the life span, so the relationship between discrimination and health may be underestimated. A lack of adequate tools inhibits study of how and to what extent discrimination impacts disparities. This study will develop and test the Exposure to Structural Discrimination (ESD) instrument for validity and reliability. It will address these specific aims: Aim 1: Define domains for the construct of structural discrimination through semi-structured interviews with key informants, Aim 2: Draft and refine an instrument to quantify the extent to which older African Americans have been exposed to structural discrimination across contexts and throughout their lives, Aim 3: Pilot the instrument to assess the tool’s reliability and validity. This research and the subsequent work it enables could inform policies and interventions aimed at mitigating the relationship between structural discrimination and older adult health, ultimately improving equality in opportunity to age with dignity.


Sarah LaFave is a PhD candidate in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar. Sarah’s research and service focuses on improving health equity for older adults aging in the community. She previously worked as a nurse care manager, a nonprofit program manager, and in community health at a university. Sarah is co-founder and board president of the nonprofit organization Lori’s Hands. Sarah earned her Bachelors of Science in Nursing from the University of Delaware and her Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Land and Labor: How Does the Pandemic Impacts China’s Urban Unemployment, Migrant Livelihood, and Rural Land Consolidation?

Awardee: Tian Tian Liu, Sociology

In the past 20 years, rural-to-urban migration and urbanization have been the driving forces behind China’s economic development. Millions of migrant labors take up jobs in manufacturing and service sectors, providing the vital labor force that shapes China’s urban social landscape. The experiences of living in cities and being wage labor, however, remain highly differentiated and discriminatory. Although some migrant workers secure stable jobs, many are trapped in precarious positions that are subject to layoff and wage suppression, forming an urban underclass. Frequently ignored is the fact that such urban dynamics also profoundly reshape migrants’ relationship with their family land in the countryside. As wage-work becomes increasingly dominant, some choose to transfer land to large-scale commercial farmers, as the state pushes hard for agricultural modernization, while others still depend on land for part of their livelihood and are reluctant to relinquish control. The ongoing pandemic puts China’s migrant families’ trans-local livelihood strategies under great strain. As the urban economy contracts due to national and worldwide lockdown, many migrant workers suddenly lost their urban source of income. What happens to the migrant population will greatly influence China’s urban economy, its dynamics of inequality and poverty, and rural land institutions. Centering the rural-urban linkage, this project explores two interrelated questions: 1. How will the global pandemic create urban unemployment and impact the livelihood of migrant workers in various service and manufacture sectors? 2. How will urban unemployment shape migrant workers’ relationship with their farmland back home and affect rural land transfer?


Tian Liu is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His research examines the development of capitalist agriculture in the Chinese countryside under the broader context of rural-to-urban migration and the ongoing global economic crisis. Prior to coming to Hopkins, he worked in the Liberthal&Rogel Center for China Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He holds an MSc in Sociology from Hopkins and a BA in Political Science from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Understanding Implementation of Healthy Kids’ Meals Policies in the United States

Awardee: Crystal Lee Perez, Health Policy & Management

Childhood obesity affects 1 in 5 children in the US, differentially impacting historically underrepresented groups. Obesity is associated with hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other adverse health outcomes. A major contributor to obesity is the consumption of sugary drinks, which increases a child’s caloric intake. Low-income urban areas have experienced an exodus of grocery stores and an influx of fast-food outlets, where sugary drinks are often served with kids’ meals. Healthy kids’ meal (HKM) policies aim to improve the nutritional composition of kids’ meals by requiring that restaurants replace sugary drinks with healthier beverages (e.g., water, milk, or 100% juice with no added sweeteners) on kids’ menus. HKM policies seek to make the healthy choice easier for children and families by changing the default option, while maintaining freedom of choice. Currently, 18 states and localities have adopted HKM policies, with substantial variation in how they are written, implemented, and enforced. This study will use multiple methods to examine HKM policy text and implementation, and correlates of kids’ meal purchases in restaurants. Aim 1 uses a modified legal mapping approach and content analysis of HKM policies. Aim 2 uses an embedded multiple case study approach with semi-structured interviews to assess implementation of HKM laws. Aim 3 assesses correlates of kids’ meal purchases in fast-food restaurants prior to implementation of an HKM policy. Results from this study may inform policymakers, advocates, government agencies, and restaurants about the implementation of HKM policies and potential impacts on childhood obesity and eating behaviors.


Crystal Lee Perez is a 4th- year PhD candidate in Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research focuses on assessing the implementation of policies/programs designed to promote healthy eating, particularly kids’ meal policies, and understanding how these policies/programs may differentially affect consumers especially in urban communities. Prior to starting her PhD, Crystal worked at Texas A&M University, where she conducted research on community interventions designed to increase access to more healthful foods as well as safe physical activity opportunities in low-income neighborhoods along the border. She also interned with the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, evaluating their funding of childhood obesity research projects.

Providing Decision Support for Climate Adaptation: The Value of Uncertainty-Based Adaptive Management

Awardee: Rui Shi, Environmental Health & Engineering

Climate change is a major concern for sustainable development, especially in urban areas. Increasing risks of extreme weather events such as heat waves and stormwater are of concern because they can cause significant health and economic impacts on urban residents. Well-planned adaptation is necessary and urgent to mitigate those adverse effects. However, uncertainty about how climate change will evolve and the costs and effectiveness of mitigating its effects means that near-term decisions will need to be made without fully knowing their consequences. Decision analysis can systematically analyze decision problems under uncertainty, and thus can be an effective tool to support decision-making for urban climate adaptation. This dissertation will address how comprehensive decision analysis can inform adaptation planning for mitigating health impacts of heat waves in cities, using Baltimore, MD as a case study. Specifically, it will first develop a more efficient way to monitor intra-urban temperature at the neighborhood scale; and then, with this temperature information, it will employ the Robust Decision Making (RDM) method to design robust, adaptive strategies for urban heat adaptation in Baltimore through 2020 to 2039. The robust strategies identified in the study have the goal of efficiently using resources to reduce mortality effects of urban heat waves across a wide range of future scenarios. The RDM analytic framework can be generalized to other cities.


Rui Shi is a Ph.D. student of the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. His faculty advisor is Prof. Benjamin Hobbs. Rui’s research interests focus on Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty and its application in informing climate adaptation for urban areas. Rui earned his master’s degree from the University of Michigan and his bachelor’s degree from the Nanjing University. He also worked at the RAND Corporation and the Rocky Mountain Institute as a summer associate.

Feeling Valued? Exploring Teacher-perceived Support from Families in Urban Early Care and Education Programs

Awardee: Natalie Schock, Education

In recent years, access to early education programming has expanded in urban areas and beyond. Accompanying this expansion is the significance of early education teachers and schools in children’s social, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Developmental theory suggests that children develop such functioning as they interact with the their home and school environments. In addition, the intersection of these environments—i.e., family engagement in school—plays a role. Though research suggests that family engagement in school is an important component of this development, relatively little work exists on the nuances therein. Thus, this dissertation seeks to explore associations between aspects of family engagement, including teachers’ perceptions of support from families, preschool environments, and children’s social, emotional, and behavioral functioning. To do so, it uses a racially and socioeconomically diverse population of preschoolers and their families and teachers from two urban areas in Ohio and Maryland.


Natalie Schock

Natalie Schock is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She studies early care and education, family engagement, and kindergarten readiness. Natalie is a Teach For America alum and previously taught third grade in the South Bronx. Natalie has also worked as a writer and producer for a preschool media company, a gang prevention counselor through AmeriCorps, a teaching assistant at Perkins School for the Blind, and a newspaper copy editor. She is a member of the Society for Research in Child Development and the American Educational Research Association. She serves as a student representative to the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and as a tutor with Reading Partners in Baltimore.

Cities Under Stress: Authority Erosion in South America

Awardee: Maximiliano Vejares, Political Science

When do states decide to control ungoverned spaces and when do they abdicate control to social actors? In Latin America, the recent commodity boom and the rise of criminal activities encouraged local actors that both challenged the monopoly of violence and demanded public goods, presenting governments with the decision to extend control or waive it. Facing these challenges, incumbents have taken different strategies, sometimes meeting demands while other times abdicating power to local actors, creating local regimes of indirect rule. I analyze the case of Chile, where despite the relative strength of the state and consistent economic growth for three decades, new challenges have eroded local governments’ ability and willingness to provide services. This project examines communities that have been disrupted by extractive industries and new, non-partisan political brokers such as organized criminal groups, religious organizations and social movements. I aim to uncover the factors that explain local governments’ responses to varying challenges by local non-state actors.


Max is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, where he works under the supervision of Sebastian Mazzuca. His research interests include conflict, contentious politics and state building with a regional focus on Latin America. Max earned his Masters degree in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and previously served as a consultant in the consular division of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he worked on diaspora issues and data analysis.

Start typing and press Enter to search